In an earlier post, I discussed a possible magical formula for preserving and reviving dead body parts. This time I want to consider who these revived bits were being offered to: the giantesses.
Volsa thattr, or the Tale of the Penis, was a 14th-century story about a supposed pagan cult in which people passed a preserved horse’s penis around as part of a ceremony during which each would recite a verse while holding the object. Each verse, which seem to have been composed on the spot, spoke of the owner and their circumstances, and used the same phrase: “may the mornir accept this sacrifice”.
A much earlier pagan poem, Haustlong, refers to the giant Thiazi twice as the father of the morn. Since his daughter is the giantess Skadi, it would be logical to think that the mornir must be giantesses.
The list of giantess names in the thulur is followed by a list of Thor’s names, which suggests that the poem Thorsdrapa and the story that inspired it was in the compiler’s mind. In it Thor suffers the indignities of being pissed on and then nearly crushed by giantesses. (Note that Haustlong also refers to Thor as the waster of morn‘s children.)
The word mörn is obscure in origin; however, two possible derivations are 1) from the verb merja, “to crush, bruise”, or else 2) from the noun mara, from which we get the –mare in nightmare. (French: 70)
Not surprisingly, all this has produced a lively literature on whether there ever was a cult of the mornir, and what sort of cult it might be (if there was one). Outside of academia, writers like Barbara Walker have shown a rather worrying interest in the castration aspect of the story.
Skadi and Loki
The giantess Skadi was involved in a mock-castration incident as part of her myth. After the gods killed her father, she demanded compensation, in the form of a husband. She added another demand as a rider – they had to make her laugh.
Loki stepped up and appeared before her with his testicles tied to one end of a rope, and the other tied to a nanny-goat’s beard. The two pulled back and forth, until the rope broke and Loki fell into Skadi’s lap. She laughed, and the gods were quits with her. Some, however, have interpreted this story as an offering of Loki’s testicles to appease an angry and grieving Morn, connecting this to the offering in Volsa thattr.
Since the story of Thiazi has him pulling Loki behind him, stuck to the pole he struck at the giant with, and Skadi later put a poisonous snake to drip venom over Loki bound, you could see a phallic theme running through their story. (Lindow: 269)
Certainly Barbara Walker and Richard North have both seen Loki as castrated in this myth. However, Snorri does not say anything about him losing his testicles, and if he had lost them, you would have expected someone to mention it in Lokasenna, when he’s insulting everyone. (We know from other sources that this was considered a major injury and a disgraceful one.)
Cult of the Giantess(es)
However, the poem Lokasenna does bring up the question of whether the giants received worship. When Skadi and Loki are arguing, she tells him:
‘I tell you, if first and most final you were at the killing,
when you laid hands on Thjazi:
from my shrines and plains shall always come
cold counsels as far as you go.’
(Lksn 51, Orchard’s trans.)
That and other evidence, such as place-names, suggest that Skadi did have a cult, and we do know from the Prose Edda that she and some other giantesses were counted among the goddesses. All of them, however, have some family connection to the gods, either as wives (Skadi, Gerd), or mothers (Jord).
Apart from the goddess/giantess figures in the Eddas, the giantess Thorgerd Holgabrudr is mentioned in several sagas as having a cult and temple of her own. She received many rich offerings there, and earl Hakon of Norway had a particular devotion to her. The Jomsviking Saga tells how he wooed her with sacrifices and she sent a storm to help him win a battle. (He wins her over by sacrificing his seven-year-old son, by the way.)
Two other sagas, Njal’s saga and Harðar saga ok Hólmverja, tell how Thorgerd’s temples were destroyed. In the first instance an image of Thorgerd and another of Thor are destroyed to demoralize Hakon, but in the second an unsuccessful worshipper burns her temple, and then drops dead himself. (He was annoyed that the goddess had prophesied he hadn’t long to live; so annoyed he forgot the fates like irony.)
Another giantess, Goi, had a festival dedicated to her at the beginning of February, called the Goiblot. The month itself was named after her as well. The Goiblot or Goi’s Sacrifice began after she disappeared at the Thorri Sacrifice in January, and was held in the hope of finding out what had happened to her. It supposedly became an annual event, even after she was found.
Her brothers were the first kings of Norway, a line which also produced the earls of Orkney. (I discussed in another post how both these aristocratic families were proud to trace themselves back to the giants.) So not only did the giantess Goi have her own festival, but she was an ancestor of the royal family of Norway.
I mention all this to show that there were cults of giantesses, and the cults of Thorgerd and Goi seem to have been an important ones. So the mornir may have been a real cult as well, although on a more domestic scale.
As Clive Tolley points out, clearly the writer had some fun at the expense of rural pagans, but some of it is based on actual lore, such as the “linen and leek” formula. Tolley is skeptical about any cult of giantesses, but as I have shown, other giantess cults existed.
The writer may not have preserved a pagan cult with the same fidelity as the housewife, but that does not mean that some sort of rural cult of the giantesses did not exist.
PS – I should give a nod to Tara Sparling, who would no doubt consider this an extremely click-baity title.
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
The Haustlöng of Þjódólfr of Hvinir Richard North (ed. and trans.), Enfield Lock, Middlesex, Hisarlik Press, 1997.
French, Kevin 2014: “We need to talk about Gefjun: Toward a new etymology of an Old Icelandic theonym.”, University of Iceland, MA thesis. (pdf here)
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
North, Richard 2001: “Loki’s Gender: Or, why Skadi Laughed”, in Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe, eds. Olsen, Karin E. and Luuk A. J. R. Houwen: Peeters Publishers, Leuven: 141-51.
Røthe, Gunnhild 2006: “The Fictitious Figure of Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr in the Saga Tradition”, in Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006. (pdf here)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Tolley, Clive 2009: “Völsa þáttr: Pagan Lore or Christian Lie?” in Analecta Septentrionalia. Beiträge zur nordgermanischen Kultur – und Literaturgeschichte. Festschrift an Kurt Schier, eds. Wilhelm Heizmann and Astrid van Nahl, Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, Walter de Gruyter: 680–700.
Walker, Barbara 1983: The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, HarperOne.